Fidel Castro

(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Castro led a successful revolutionary struggle against the Cuban dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista y Zaldívar in the late 1950’s. The revolutionary leader subsequently implemented Latin America’s third social revolution of the twentieth century and transformed Cuba into the first communist state of the hemisphere in defiance of the United States.

Early Life

Fidel Castro Ruz was born on a large cattle estate near the village of Birán in Cuba’s Oriente Province. Fidel was the third of seven children sired by a prosperous Spanish immigrant landowner and his second wife. Between 1941 and 1945, Castro completed his secondary education at the Colegio Belén, a prestigious Jesuit institution in Havana. Taller in stature than most Latin males, Fidel was a natural athlete, excelling in many sports, especially basketball and baseball, which he played with near professional ability. Castro enrolled in the University of Havana’s Law Faculty in 1945. There he became a student political activist in a frequently violent campus political setting. Castro joined one of the rival student political groups, became known for his speaking talent, and occasionally expressed nationalist and anti-imperialist sentiments, while condemning the exploitation of the poor by the rich.

While a university student, Castro became involved in two international incidents—first, an aborted attempt in 1947 to overthrow the Dominican Republic’s dictator Rafael Leónidas Trujillo Molina, and then, in 1948, political disorders following the assassination of a prominent Colombian politician in Bogotá, where Castro was attending an anti-imperialist student congress. In spite of these extracurricular interruptions, Castro was graduated in 1950 with a doctor of laws degree. The politically ambitious graduate began his career as an attorney who litigated on behalf of underprivileged clients. Castro also became active in the Havana organization of the Ortodoxo Party, which championed reform and crusaded against corruption. Most recent presidential regimes had succumbed to graft and gangsterism, frustrating popular sentiment in favor of economic nationalist policies and profound social reform. The young attorney was selected to run as an Ortodoxo candidate for congress in the general elections scheduled for June, 1952.

Life’s Work

Events soon propelled Castro into a revolutionary career. On March 10, 1952, former president and political strongman Fulgencio Batista y Zaldívar seized power in a coup and canceled the elections. When it became clear that peaceful tactics could not dislodge Batista, Castro and his younger brother Raúl organized an armed conspiracy. On July 26, 1953, the rebels attacked the Moncada military barracks in Santiago, hoping to set off a general uprising. The effort ended in disaster as about one-third of the one-hundred-seventy-man force survived the clash and reprisals that ensued. At Castro’s trial, the young rebel delivered a five-hour address in defense of his actions, which became known by its closing statement, “History will absolve me.”

The court sentenced Castro to fifteen years’ imprisonment. Yet Castro was released in May, 1955, through a general political amnesty. In July, Castro departed for Mexico to organize a new armed effort to topple Batista. Castro broke all ties with traditional political parties and called his new independent organization the 26th of July Movement. Joining the rebel leader abroad were his brother Raúl, other Cuban political refugees including survivors of the Moncada attack, and an Argentine-born physician, Che Guevara. After a period of secret military training, Castro’s force, numbering eighty-two men, sailed at the end of November, 1956, from the Yucatán coast for Cuba in an overloaded old yacht called the Granma. A few days after they landed in Oriente Province, an army unit nearly wiped out the small invading force. A remnant of only twelve survivors reached safety in the nearby Sierra Maestra mountains.

Eventually Castro’s tiny force received the support of peasants and was also bolstered by recruits from the movement’s urban organization. Publicity from journalistic interviews and news of rebel successes made Castro the focus of the popular resistance in Cuba. Moderate middle-class opposition groups signed an accord with the rebel leader on his terms in April, 1958. Shortly thereafter, the Cuban Communists, who had previously criticized Castro’s tactics, secretly agreed to support him. Meanwhile, Batista’s severe repression had alienated his government. The dictator’s large but ineffective army failed in its campaigns to eliminate the guerrillas. Castro’s Rebel Armed Forces, numbering fewer than one thousand, assumed...

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Fidel Castro

(Comprehensive Guide to Military History)

Article abstract: Military significance: In less than six years, Castro’s small guerrilla band seized power in Cuba, making the island nation a major Cold War hot spot.

Fidel Castro was a member of an affluent family in the eastern region of Cuba. As a law student, he led antigovernment actions that climaxed with the July 25, 1953, attack on the Moncada Barracks. Castro served a jail term, then lived briefly in the United States and Mexico. Castro returned to Cuba and, in December, 1956, started a guerrilla campaign that took a little over two years to succeed. In February, 1959, Castro became prime minister of Cuba; he eventually broke relations with the United States and aligned with the Soviet Union. After repulsing an American-sponsored attack by Cuban exiles, the Bay of Pigs Invasion, in 1961 and winning a guarantee from the administration of President John F. Kennedy, Jr., that Cuba would not be attacked after the Cuban Missile Crisis in October of 1962, Castro and his famous protégé Che Guevara became leading advocates of guerrilla insurrection in Latin America in the 1960’s and 1970’s. None of these insurrections succeeded, and Guevara was eventually captured and killed.

In the 1970’s, Castro adopted a different strategy, sending Cuban army units to fight in wars of liberation. Castro sent 36,000 soldiers to Angola in 1975 and 10,000 more to Ethiopia in 1977. The actions of Castro helped nurture a belief that the Cold War had entered an intensely confrontational phase. Castro remained defiant despite widespread international opposition and sent more troops to Angola in 1987. Only declining economic conditions in Cuba curbed Castro’s zeal.

Castro is adored by advocates of Third World revolution and hated by the leaders of the capitalist nations. Overlooked by both is the sobering truth that, despite Castro’s endless speeches, his actions had very little impact on world events in the first forty years of his rule.

Further Reading:

Balfour, Sebastian. Castro. New York: Longman, 1995.

Gonzales, Edward. Castro, Cuba, and the World. Santa Monica, Calif.: Rand, 1986.

Quirk, Robert. Fidel Castro. New York: W. W. Norton, 1995.